The Tablet September 2013

Crown of Thistles: the fatal inheritance of Mary Queen of Scots

Peter Marshall

Amidst the flurry of canonisations in recent decades, one potential candidate still looks very unlikely to make the cut, despite professedly dying a martyr for the Catholic faith. Whether Mary Queen of Scots counts as a Catholic martyr is arguable, and in some ways the least of her posthumous problems. Accusations have rung down the centuries. Was she complicit in the killing of her husband, Lord Darnley? Had she committed adultery with Darnleyh's murderer, the Earl of Bothwell? Did she consent to the assassination of her cousin, Elizabeth I? (Best answers are: probably not, almost certainly not: almost certainly yes). Perhaps the most polarising figure of her age, Mary divides modern biographers too, over questions not just of integrity, but of political judgment. Some see her as irresponsible and ineffective, obsessed with obtaining the English throne to the neglect of Scotland; others as a pragmatic and frequently successful monarch, faced with the near-impossible task of ruling a realm divided, not only by traditional aristocratic feuding but by new and visceral religious hostilities.

Linda Porter, in a narrative managing to be both pacy and judicious, is sympathetic, though not seduced by Mary to the extent of some previous biographers. She is agnostic about whether Mary had any prior inkling of the plot to murder Darnley. Yet she is more certain than other recent historians that Mary was raped by Bothwell, considerations of honour propelling her into the disastrous marriage to him that precipitated her loss of the throne, and flight into English captivity.

All this is dealt with fairly briskly, for the book - its title and dust-jacket portrait notwithstanding - is not principally a biography of Mary (she is born on p. 289, and begins her personal rule only on p. 380). The keyword is in fact "inheritance". Porter aims to show how, from the later fifteenth century, the political and dynastic destinies of England and Scotland became inextricably entwined, through the long backstory to the union of crowns that took place when Mary's son, James VI and I, acceded in 1603. "British" histories of the sixteenth century have become popular, trendy even, in academic circles over the last 20 years. But Porter is right to suspect most general readers, even those besotted with Anne Boleyn and Gloriana, know little of Renaissance Scotland. I hope she is being tongue-in-cheek when she suggests the fault lies with Scottish historians for "keeping their history to themselves".

Porter begins with a well-known story - the unlikely triumph in 1485 of the exiled Henry Tudor - and invites us to compare it with a less familiar one: the controversial accession, through rebellion and regicide, of James IV in 1488. Thereafter, the focus is firmly on Scotland. We learn much about the charismatic, decisive and daring (too daring) James, who wrested the crown from an unloving and ineffectual father as a teenager, to lose it in a blaze of glory at Flodden in 1513, where he and much of the Scots nobility were hacked down on a Northumbrian hillside (a quincentenaries' which passed in September 2013 with remarkably little fanfare). Porter is also an unabashed admirer - against a long tradition of criticism - of his heir, the cultured and Francophile James V, who similarly came to grief in a military contest with England. He died prematurely after the defeat at Solway Moss in 1542, leaving the infant Mary Stewart as first queen regnant in the British Isles.

Sixteenth-century Britain was blessed (or as some contemporaries saw it, cursed) with a remarkable number of female rulers. In 1558 John Know felt compelled to publish his First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, a book which, unfortunately for his career prospects in England, appeared only a few months before the Protestant Elizabeth I succeeded her Catholic sister, Mary. But Porter gives greater attention to another Mary, James V's widow, Mary of Guise, a charming and politically effective French aristocrat, who served as regent in Scotland after her daughter was taken to France to shield her from the military pressure for a marriage to Edward VI known as "rough wooing"; Porter also supplies a subtle and sympathetic portrait of a not entirely sympathetic character, James IV's widow Margaret Tudor, cast after his death into the snakepit of Scottish baronial politics.

Porter's account is enlivened by vivid anecdote (James IV's passion for doing needlework, for example), and she is good at drawing cross-border comparisons and contrasts. Perhaps only in light of the serial philandering of James IV and James V are we likely to appreciate the peculiarity of Henry VIII's marital fastidiousness. If the fecundity of the Tudors caused instability in England, the Stewart kingdom had almost the opposite problem: a profusion of bastard royal half-brothers with a hungry sense of political entitlement. A focus on politics and personalities can sometimes be at the expense of context: the Reformation is a rather off-stage process, and only in part do we get to understand the extent to which "Britain"; was in this period a Protestant ideological project. The close unravelling of dynastic threads (assisted by helpful genealogical tables) perhaps risks the impression that eventual union was genetically predetermined. Yet a careful reader of this book will come away convinced of how great a role chance and contingency played. Porter passes no judgment on whether it was all for the best. Voters in the 2014 independence referendum will have to make up their own minds on that.

Peter Marshall is professor of history at the University of Warwick and author of The Reformation: a very short introduction.

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